When the Toleration Act was passed the old Nonconformity became ‘Dissent,’ that being the term used in the statute itself. Dissenters were now granted freedom of worship and preaching, but only on condition that their ministers subscribed to the doctrinal articles of the Church of England, including, of course, belief in the Trinity. Unitarians, therefore, were excluded from the benefit of the Act, and the general views of Dissenters upon the subject are clear from the fact that they took special care to have Unitarians ruled out from the liberty now being achieved by themselves. Locke and other liberal men evidently regretted this limitation, but the time was not ripe, and in fact the penal law against Unitarians was not repealed till 1813. Unluckily, too, for the Unitarians, a sharp controversy, due to their own zeal, had broken out at the very time that the Toleration Act was shaping, and as this had other important results we must give some attention to it.
There are six volumes, containing under this title a large number of pamphlets and treatises, for and against the new views, published about this period. It is the first considerable body of Unitarian literature. Its promoter was Thomas Firmin, a disciple of John Bidle, on whose behalf he interceded with Oliver Cromwell, though himself but a youth at the time. Firmin, a prosperous citizen of London, counted among his friends men of the highest offices in the Church, some of whom are said to have been affected with his type of thought. Apart from his Unitarianism he is remarkable as an enlightened philanthropist of great breadth of sympathy. Men of very different theological bent who were fain to seek refuge in London from persecutions abroad were aided by funds raised by him. We should notice also that, ardent as he was in diffusing Unitarian teachings, he had no wish at first to set up separate Unitarian chapels; his desire was that the national Church should include thinkers like himself. We are thus pointed into a path which for a time at least promised more for Unitarian developments than anything very evident in the Dissenting community.